US considers pika protection due to warming

The alpine-dwelling American Pika could be the first species outside of Alaska listed as an endangered species because of global warming.

If you were to cross a rabbit with a hamster, make it very sensitive to heat, and deposit it on mountains throughout the western United States, you'd be wasting your time because it looks as though somebody has already done it.

The American pika, a small furry mammal in the same order as rabbits and hares, makes its home at high elevations where it enjoys the cold. Pikas that are exposed to temperatures over 80 degrees Fahrenheit tend to overheat and die.

Which is exactly what has been happening, scientists say. The San Francisco Chronicle cites reports that the animals are vanishing as temperatures rise:

Surveys in the Great Basin show that more than one-third of the populations are disappearing, according to Erik Beever, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Out of 25 former populations found decades ago, only 16 could be located in a recent search. California populations that live at the lower elevations already are suffering from rising temperatures, scientists say. ...
"Pikas are intolerant to higher temperatures, and the scientists are finding that the lower-elevation populations are disappearing," said Shaye Wolf, a biologist on staff of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Higher temperatures also threaten pikas by shortening the time available for them to gather food, altering the types of plants in their habitat, and reducing insulating snowpack during winter.

The pika's decline has prompted the Center for Biological Diversity to file suit in August 2008 against the federal government, to force it to consider protecting the flower-gathering herbivore under the Endangered Species Act. On Thursday, the environmental advocacy group announced that they had arrived at a settlement agreement under which the US Fish and Wildlife Service would assess whether the pika warrants protection under act.

The agency has until May 2009 to make its determination; if it decides to designate the pika as an endangered species, the animal will be listed nine months later.

If listed, the pika would be the first animal outside Alaska, and the only mammal other than the polar bear, to be afforded protection because of global warming. But that doesn't necessarily mean that energy companies will start facing Endangered Species Act lawsuits

In May 2008, after much lobbying by wildlife groups, the the Interior Department listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It was the first species to be listed due to the threat from global warming, as repeated scientific studies revealed that rising temperatures are causing the Arctic sea ice vital to the bears’ survival to vanish.

This listing prompted fears among Bush administration officials that environmentalists could use the Act as a “back door” to regulate greenhouse gases. As President Bush's Interior Secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, said when he made the announcement, “The Endangered Species Act is not the means, nor the method, nor the vehicle by which you can deal with global climate change.”

In other words, the listing would not hold individual greenhouse gas emitters responsible for destroying the polar bears' habitat.

Additionally, in December the department announced a change to a section in the Endangered Species Act that required federal agencies to consult with government scientists to determine whether a project is likely to harm any listed species. Under the new rule, agencies such as the Federal Highway Administration can in many cases simply check with their own personnel before launching an infrastructure project.

This rule change, which went into effect nine days before Barack Obama’s inauguration, is expected to take many months, if not years, to reverse.

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